The best time to look out a vehicle’s window.
Until companies like SpaceX take over, astronauts returning home from the International Space Station have to take a ride in the Soviet Union’s Soyuz reentry capsule. Up to three astronauts can squeeze into this robust little craft, burn through Earth’s atmosphere, and land “gently” on a flat steppe in Kazakhstan with the help of a parachute. As the capsule blasts into the air that surrounds our planet, it looks like this:
The GIF above comes from a NASA TV video that shows a clip from astronaut Mike Hopkins on Expedition 37/38 as he reentered Earth’s atmosphere.
It’s not clear what exactly is burning up like shooting stars out Hopkins’ window. When the capsule enters Earth’s atmosphere, it is moving so fast that air in front of it can’t move out of the way fast enough. That air gets compressed and gets hot — that’s how objects “burn up.” The Soyuz capsule does have ablative heat shielding — a kind of shielding that is designed to tear away as it protects the capsule — and this is most likely what we are seeing flash and flare in the GIF above.
You can watch the full video below; the reentry part of the video itself starts at 12:36. It’s all-to-brief, but it’s incredible.
CORRECTION: The original version of this post speculated that debris in the atmosphere is what is seen out the window. The post has been changed to reflect the fact that it is more likely bits of the capsule’s ablative shielding.